I’ve started listening to the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, Sanderson being a conspicuous gap in my coverage of modern fantasy. I noticed early on his use of the word “ashmount” to describe what I assume are volcanoes, and that observation prompted me to write this piece on the use of vocabulary and language in fantasy fiction.
When I wrote my first fantasy novel, The Ventifact Colossus, I made a decision to write in a more modern, casual style than is typical of the genre. Some of my readers found this a refreshing positive, while others suffered the occasional jolt from unexpected words or phrases. One reader in particular, self-described as an “elderly English grammar fanatic,” took exception to words like “passel,” “skedaddle,” “bushwhacked,” “passive-aggressive,” and “scarf” (used as a verb). She wrote: “Who would use such expressions in that setting, especially the ones that refer to something cultural? No only don’t they fit, they’re not even from the same modern era.”
The Ventifact Colossus is set in the fantasy kingdom of Charagan, and obviously no one there is literally speaking English, nor do they have any of Earth’s cultural background. One of the unwritten rules of secondary-world fantasy (i.e. that doesn’t take place on Earth) is to avoid words that are derived from blatant cultural sources. I agree with that as a general rule, but it’s a fuzzier line than it may seem at first.
Since no one is speaking English in the world of Charagan, every single word I use is at cultural odds with its origins. I suspect readers would not disapprove of me using words like “celerity” or “amicable,” even though there were no Holy Roman or Greek empires in the annals of Chargish history. Whence then came the roots for modern English words with Latin and Greek origins? Should I avoid words like “autograph” and “astronomy?” “Latitude” and “famous?” “Martial law?”
I consider myself, in a linguistic sense, to be a translator of words with no grounding in English, but meant for a reader who is intimately familiar with English. To object to the word “skedaddle” is to maintain there was no word in my fictional world for which “skedaddle” was the best translation. Well, I say that there was. It’s my world! And given that I’m translating Chargish into English, I’m not bothered that “skedaddle” and “passive-aggressive” come from different eras, any more than with the temporal divide between “scoot” (mid 18th-century) and “amble” (Latin).
The rules for how to use language in a secondary-world setting are extremely vague, blurry, and (in my opinion) wide open to an author’s interpretation and style. For vocabulary specifically, I personally draw the line at explicit foreign expressions (that have not entered the English mainstream) and references. For instance, none of my characters will say “When in Rome…” or “je ne sais quoi.” And I avoid direct anachronisms. I will not use words like “computer” or “helicopter,” along with expressions like “reboot” or “drained his battery.” And I’m on board with not referring to listless foot-soldiers as “cannon fodder” in a world with no cannons.
Did I go too far in places when writing The Ventifact Colossus? In hindsight, yes, a couple of times. I think I may have strayed across the line with “shanghaied” and “ritzy.” But beyond that I have no regrets for my word choices.
All of this is not to say that language, and specific words therein, cannot be used to powerful effect. I find word-choice a highly useful tool for characterization in particular. One of my characters is a hyper-intelligent, book-learned wizard, and so uses words like “hypothesize” and “elucidate” that none of the other characters would ever consider. (And in one scene, one of the less-educated protagonists specifically fails to understand some of the words used by said wizard.) Fantasy characters, like the people of 21st-century Earth, use words and language quite differently from one another.
Now, clearly there are well-established conventions for style and word choice in the fantasy genre. There is a certain formality lent to fantasy works by the stately, old-style language that most fantasy authors use. And that slang- and modern-idiom-free prose has a side-effect (or maybe it’s the primary intended effect?) of making all the characters sound serious. Even the irreverent, wise-cracking ones. Is that a good thing? A necessary thing?
In my work-in-progress, The Crosser’s Maze, the most irreverent character, Dranko, says the following after hearing a litany of horrifying dangers he and his friends might encounter while traversing a jungle:
“You know what all that sounds like?” Dranko interrupted. “That sounds like a bunch of stuff we’re going to fly over.”
“Bunch of stuff.” I’m fairly certain most fantasy authors these days would forbear from using that particular phrase. And yes, that kind of slangy, casual utterance does sand the pearly sheen of Ye Phantasy Literature off of my prose. But I am merely a translator into modern English, and if Dranko had grown up speaking English, that’s absolutely the sort of thing he’d say.
Am I inviting opprobrium by stretching those conventions? Maybe. But I also think it helps my book(s) stand out from the crowd. It’s part of what shapes my “voice,” the style in which I naturally tell stories. And if there’s one piece of universal advice out there in Author Land, it’s “write in your own voice.”
So, was Brandon Sanderson consciously avoiding the word “volcano” because of its Roman origin? I have no idea. Though I am early into his book, he has not (yet) given anything else an exotic name to avoid culture-mining. But he’s not wrong if that’s his reasoning; every fantasy author will find a place to draw their line—or more accurately, will evaluate every word near that line and decide on which side it lies. And they’ll be evaluating subjectively. I think there’s no other way to do it.
Have any thoughts about this? Remember this blog has a comments feature; go use it to write a bunch of stuff!